Opinion: Where now for liberalism?

Over the next few days, weeks and months there are a few grim but necessary processes which the Liberal Democrats (not to mention Labour and UKIP also) will have to go through: electing a new leader, debating the purpose and ideology that guides the party, and ultimately regrouping to lick our collective wounds.

Perhaps more important than the theatrics of these things unfolding, is the question well what’s next? The decimation of the party as a parliamentary force – following on from the sustained loss of local government Liberal Democrats over the past five years – has disrupted the status quo, and now more than ever a new generation will need to rise up to carry the torch of Liberalism.

Unlike Labour and the Conservatives with their safe seats even when relegated to the opposition benches this does not simply mean a new leader, a new direction and “rising stars”. For the Liberal Democrats we really are back to building ourselves up as a party of local and national government.

In re-building the party we have a stark choice: change versus more of the same. I suspect  this phrase will be banded about plenty in the ideological and strategic battles for the party’s soul and direction, but change must come in the ‘who’ as much as the ‘what’ and ‘why’.

If Liberal Democrats really are committed to a diverse, progressive and more representative country and political system then we have to put forward a party made up of individuals that reflect it. It’s no longer good enough for our candidates to overwhelmingly be the male, pale faces that have dominated politics (in our parties and others) for too long.

The party made progress in the last election, and I was proud to have a number of friends standing as part of a fantastic slate in the 2012 London GLA elections, but now we have to have a lot more candidates from more diverse background not just in the capital but across the country.

Diversity should not be a ‘nice to have’ for a modern, progressive political party (or indeed any), it should be an absolute must. There are slightly more women than men in the UK, but far too few in parliament. Every one of our 8 remaining MPs is a straight, white, middle aged man and whilst they deserve credit for winning their seats, they must be joined by future leaders and MPs who break the stereotype.

No doubt there will be those members who will want more time to introspect, to pick apart ‘what went wrong’ and to re-hash internal divides that have been put aside in the past five years. In my view re-building cannot start soon enough, so let’s seize the opportunity to build a party – from the grassroots up – which looks and sounds like the modern, diverse Britain we aspire to represent.

* Sean Davey is the Chair of London Liberal Youth

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  • As a gay white male I feel uncomfortable being in places “because of”: my white male guilt kicks in over my gay pride. That makes me feel like identity politics is a bad idea, but that’s just my view.

    I’d like to see more diversify because I feel a different experience might produce a different outlook.

    But as a gay white man I’d like to admit my shame at the thought identity politics often seems like exploiting the struggle of masses of people for the benefit of an individual working in aid of an essentially identity a neutral cause.

    It makes the principle of identity feel less noble in the face of politics.

  • Gwynfor Tyley 9th May '15 - 11:20am

    Colin et al,

    In my view the party did do the right thing in going into coalition but it was the style that was wrong. We were, and were seen as willing partners but we should have been reluctant partners – each time we voted for something we did not like – it should have been clear that we were only doing it as part of teh coalition agreement and that we were getting our legislation through as a quid pro quo.

    With such an approach, it would have been much easier to fight the tories in the GE – too much of what we campaigned on was against labour despite only having a small number of seats facing labour because we were hamstrung against our much larger tory opposition because the public saw it as attacking ourselves – the choice we took was to try to say that the last five years would be very different to the next five which is an impossible trick to pull off.

    As for what to do next, that is another post.

  • Maybe the problem here is asking what liberalism- to Liberal Democrats- actually is. The party has been decimated not because it disappointed liberals, but because going into coalition it lost the protest vote- the striking thing watching the election overnight was how thoroughly that had swept across to UKIP, who now have the “I want to vote but not for the two main parties” vote. The actual policies of the Liberal Demcrats and UKIP could not be more different, so the striking thing there must be that the protest vote are not, and never were, voting for a philosophy; just against the two main parties.

    The philosophy of liberalism is, or was anyway, the philosophy of individual freedom, both socially and economically. Free people and free markets. A small government. Negative rights. But the Liberal Party gradually shifted a long time ago to a form of socialism, and particularly social authoritarianism. But when Labour arose, they did that better, which was the reason the Liberal Party was decimated in the 20th century.

    If the LD party stands now for “progressivism and diversity”, then there is already the Labour Party to vote for to get that, and they can actually win power. Even the Tory Party is mostly committed to these things now; it was Cameron who introduced Gay Marriage for instance, after all. If the Liberal Democrats don’t stand for anything that is already done by the two party hegemony; if “liberalism” now is simply progressivism, then what actual positive purpose does this party have?

    Perhaps the party might get some brand identity by remembering what Liberalism as a movement used to be about, instead of trying to survive in an overcrowded market of “progressive” parties for no apparent reason beyond its own desire to continue existing. With UKIP now being the Protest Party apparently, the Liberal Democrats need to think hard about why they want to exist at all.

  • Brian Rigby 9th May '15 - 11:45am

    As an Old Liberal and former Liberal Councillor I believe as Ming Cambell has advised we have 5 years to rebuild from the bottom up. Lib Dems need to return to the Old Liberal style of Community Politics while we better prepare the next generation of Lib Dems advising them never to trust a Tory or the Rightwing Press and Media. We need fresh policies for the future that while taking account of our basic values address the concerns of the young who in 5 years time will be the voters who will help us back. I say this as an old man. Forget past battles, forget recriminations. Look to the future . Start tomorrow. I intend too.

  • 1) don’t rush to a new leader
    2) commission a credible *independent* review of all the party failures. It is crucial that this is seen to be distinct from any strand of opinion.
    3) root and branch overhaul of party structure
    4) build from the local party up. Take time to build sustainable structures distinct from (and this is crucial) elected representatives. They have too much to do without running the local party. If that means not fielding candidates until the structure is in place so be it
    5) recruitment. Bring in younger people, listen to them, and try their ideas out. Some willl fail but many won’t. Returning to what worked in the 70s and 80s will only apply the coup de grace.

  • It would help to define what liberalism actually means to the Liberal Democrats. There also needs to be an acceptance that the UK is not as liberal as the media would have us believe and so you are only going to appeal to a minority segment of the electorate. Equality can and should be one strand but I think social mobility and encouraging clean tech/industry with tax incentives (something for business to back) should also be equal strands. If the media is going to be able to define the Liberal Democrats, with the ‘liberals have ruined this country’, before the Lib Dems have a chance to define themselves then most of the hard work in rebuilding is futile.

  • Im one of the 2400 new/rejoined members since the Polls closed – the Lib Dems MUST be a true open & free party – involving ALL members in policy making/voting (if we cant trust our members………….) .I know the great & the good have a platform….but to Liberals that makes no difference – Lord , Lady or MP (yes we have 8 left!!) whoever puts something forward.
    Get rid of the Leader gift putting forward Lords – let the members put forward candidates for the positions….. and the Leader can then consider…. lets see if veto those……. again WE MUST TRUST OUR MEMBERS.

    Come on all Liberals – now is the time. Things can change very quickly in Politics …… but we must get our house in order first – get the foundations right and firm. Liberal minded people are out there.

  • Welcome Greenfield and all other new members. I’ve gathered my thoughts – and hope these are useful as part of our deb ate on where to go next:

    1) We have to become outsiders again.
    We got so much attention in 2010 because we threatened the big two like never before, and when we entered coalition it was with the hope of changing how politics worked. Early signs were encouraging: fixed term parliaments, voting reform, Lords reform. But somewhere it got lost along the way, and we became far too comfortable with the status quo. Nick Clegg was not just DPM but Minister for Constitutional Reform. What a total failure in this role. Why did we include a line in a PPB about how fine the British parliamentary system was? Why was our approach to recall of MPs so hopeless, and a million miles away from our attitude in opposition? We went native too quickly, and offered nothing about changing how politics worked in our manifesto or campaign. This leeched millions of votes to UKIP and the Greens, who couldn’t believe how we let go of the ‘change’ mantle.

    I don’t believe going into coalition was wrong, or the primary cause of our downfall – but we got too comfortable in government, and forgot how our radical edge had been smoothed off. The final week slogan of “Stability,Unity, Decency” was the nadir in this. No no no! This is not what the Lib Dems should ever be about.

    2) We allowed others to define us.
    “Stronger Economy Fairer Society” wasn’t a bad idea – but the manifesto was so timid, and by the campaign it was just “brain to one and heart to the other” We defined ourselves purely in relation to the big two, which just gave them attention and made us look indistinctive. We should have stood loud and proud on our values and policies – had we started with the 6 red lines we ended up with we might have got somewhere. No-one outside our party cares about the front page of the manifesto or gives it any additional priority. Where we should have referenced the others was in speaking about how we still wanted to change politics but came up against the big 2 refusing to budge again and again.

    3) Shut up about voting reform and diversity.
    This will be controversial. Firstly after every election, the losers complain about the voting system. A Tory majority aren’t interested. Simply say that we believe in PR and move on. But also, we are already saying that our lack of diversity in the parliamentary party is a key issue in what went wrong. As Liberals of course we want our party to reflect our community, and are already talking of ways to increase female representation. But it’s not any part of why we lost, and we are kidding ourselves if we think this extends beyond the Lib Dem core. We have to speak to the nation’s priorities more than our own right now.

    4) Never again take pain without getting something back
    What exactly did we get for voting tuition fees, NHS reforms, welfare cuts through? Why did we ever let these through without insisting on Cameron’s pledge on pensioner benefits being broken as well? When there were obvious trade-offs (killing boundary reform over Lords reform, free school lunches for marriage tax allowances) people could understand what we were getting for the things we didn’t approve of. And compare the pain we took in voting for tuition fees, against the lack of Tory pain on things they didn’t really want. Green energy, Fixed Term parliaments and (lost) AV referendums never struck at their voters in the same way (however much noise Nigel Farage made)

    5)Be a critical friend of Europe, not a fan club
    This hurt us on the doorsteps in my area. Not that we support being in the EU, but that we are seen as cheerleaders and a soft touch. We are in because we want to improve it – reform agricultural policies, the monthly circus to Strasbourg, speed up justice, make sure that subsidiarity (Europe doesn’t deal with things than can be done better in countries) is applied rigorously. We are heading into an EU referendum (and my wife, an EU national, is already panicking about having to leave the country, and considering applying for a British passport as of yesterday) where we need to be a rational voice about Europe having flaws, needing reform, but ultimately benefitting us. Maybe we should have allowed the 2017 referendum through, but too late for that now, but we can still change tone.

    6) No blaming individuals.
    It’s happened. I’m so sorry it has, but it can’t be changed. Clegg had to go, but beyond that I see little value in blaming others for where we’ve ended up. Blood-letting might make us feel better, but it’s not what will make the party appeal to the country again. Let’s show the country how the Lib Dem family treat each other in defeat, and let them see how different we are from other parties who indulge in big rows at moments like these.

  • @Ian B agree totally. I would add that Labour benefitted from the extension of the franchise so became the tribal working class party. We were the tribal middle class party but lost that to those who feared or embraced socialism.

    Labour retain that tribal vote but it is dissipating over time.

    Progressive leftism is a boat that’s sailed.

  • Grim was on Friday morning, choosing a new leader, establishing some new ideas and welcoming new and returning members is not grim.

  • @ Colin
    “Your pals over these last few years stabbed you in the back, and then ate you. They wanted the seats that added to their majority,”

    Of course the Conservatives wanted our seats to have a majority. They didn’t eat us. It could be said that they eat the Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals but they didn’t eat us. The Liberal Unionists and the National Liberals had electoral pacts so the Conservatives did not put up candidates against them. We never had an electoral pact with the Conservatives and if we had, we would have been ruling out being a coalition with any other party except the Conservatives. We lost 10 seats to the SNP and 11 to Labour. I believe most of us understood that we would lose seats in 2015 if we joined a coalition, but I expect we were thinking in the area of 20 or 30. We thought we would be better at being seen as different to the Conservatives while in coalition and that we would be better at presenting a positive liberal message during the general election.

    @ Ian B
    “The philosophy of liberalism is, or was anyway, the philosophy of individual freedom, both socially and economically. Free people and free markets. A small government. Negative rights.”

    This is not really true and if you examined history in more detail you would see this. Liberalism is about individual freedom. It recognises that individuals are held back by the powerful and so takes action against the powerful. Therefore they supported reducing the number of people on the government pay role because they didn’t help the majority but were a means for the state to subsidize the powerful and rich. They supported free trade because it reduced the power of the land owners, provided more income for the majority and provided cheap food so the majority had more resources to increase their freedom. They recognised that employers had more power than the workers and so restricted the hours people could work and in the 20th century set up wage councils. They supported local government expansion and their involvement in providing services to the people – roads, education, social services, housing, sewage, water, electricity, etc. Liberalism has always been about giving individuals the freedom to do, starting with the freedom to think and the freedom of worship.

  • Why think when you can just do stuff? When the author refers to more time, his scale can be best measured in hours for we are still only hours past the result. It’s great that some people can ingest the information from 650 constituencies so quickly and come up with strategy to move forward, and I do agree with some of his ideas, but this is another Lib Dem than can talk better than he can listen.

    “to re-hash internal divides that have been put aside in the past five years”

    Clearly worked a treat! You’ve really not thought this through.

  • Where now for liberalism?
    At its root, walking into a ballot booth is a matter of voting to access, manage or preserve resources.
    Consider a cohort vote in this context :
    [Green],… that resources should be better conserved and shared more equally both here and globally.
    [SNP], … that more resources should go to the Scottish
    [UKIP],… that British Citizens should have first call on resources.
    [Labour ],… that resources should be shifted fairly, from the rich to the poor.
    [Tory],.. that resources should support the vulnerable whilst not destroying the incentive for producers of resources.
    [ Not voting ],… That none of the above parties can be trusted to acquire, manage and share resources in any fair, equitable and honest way.
    So, where does ‘liberalism’ stand in the context of societal resource acquisition and distribution? And,… what is the unique (cohort), reason to vote Lib Dem that could not be met with a [X], in the box of one of the other available parties?

  • Jenny Barnes 9th May '15 - 3:39pm

    In 10 years in my borough/ constituency we have gone from being a target seat, and running the borough and parish councils to 5th place in the parliamentary election (under 10%) and no LDs at all at any level of local government. And most of the activists have given up or died. The one good thing to come out of all this is Clegg’s resignation. It’s been like hitting a mule over the heat with a piece of 2by2. Eventually it realises…which bit of losing nearly all your elected representatives do you not understand?
    Right now I have no idea what the LDs stand for nor whether there is the slightest hope, whatever it is, of the LDs ever having any political influence again, to achieve it.
    It’s just possible that there may be some ideas we can coalesce around at conference in the Autumn, but there’s certainly no need to rush to get out and talk to people. Most don’t think they are interested in politics, till it hurts them.

  • @John Dunn excellent analysis

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 4:31pm

    John Dunn 9th May ’15 – 3:27pm
    “Where now for liberalism?”

    John, from something you posted in the past, I believe you might be a UKIP supporter. I undertake not to use this as part of my answer nor refer to your party at all in my response to your reasonable question.

    Are you a UKIP or Conservative party supporter?

  • Derek Campbell 9th May '15 - 4:55pm

    @John Dunn

    An interesting and accurate analysis. I believe that there is a space for a libdem alternative:

    [LibDem],…that decisions about the allocation of resources should be made more locally where possible.

    This does not appear to be in conflict with any of the other choices, but is distinctive, easily understood and in keeping with Liberalism (at least as I understand it).

  • @Derek Campbell good answer. And that 1 those closest to the decision are best placed to know what their best interests are and 2 that will lead to diversity in decision making which is to be expected and celebrated

  • @ Stephen Hesketh
    Fair question Stephen. My voting ‘CV’ goes something like this :
    [20 years Labour],… [5 years Liberal Democrat],.. [8 years Labour],.. [ 4 years of ……… “Who stole Real Democratic Choice?”],.. [ 18 months UKIP ].

  • David Evans 9th May '15 - 5:22pm

    It is great to hear that people are returning to the Lib Dem family in such numbers of their own accord. It shows there is real hope for a Liberal Democrat future. Sadly for too long membership has not had the focus it should have and it has fallen from 100,000 to the current levels in not much more than a decade. We need to get it back to those levels and if possible to nearer 200,000 as soon as we can. Even more we need to attract back those people who know Liberal Democrats can make a difference.

    What I believe we need to do now is campaign to support and boost that return by urging people to join the party and help rebuild it from the grass roots up. We need to get a couple of big hitters to front it and we need to do it now because if it does not happen now it will be too late. We have to strike while the iron is hot.

    The problem is that the party is effectively rudderless at the moment and the decision making process to drive something forward quickly, and not just wait for the leadership campaign to wend its way along, is simply not there. As some people well know, I, John Tilley and a few others worked to raise funds after the Euro elections to get people to rejoin the party and take back its soul. Unfortunately we couldn’t raise the necessary funds, and the consequences we feared have come true. However, I am still trustee of the funds and we have about £4,000 to support such an initiative right now. I am contacting all those who contributed (and those who didn’t quite) to see if they would wish for their money and even more to do such a thing now. We are also contacting people who might wish to help promote and front such a campaign. If anyone else wishes to support us, get involved or just contribute they can contact me via [email protected].

  • @David Evans “We need to get a couple of big hitters to front it and we need to do it now because if it does not happen now it will be too late. We have to strike while the iron is hot.

    The problem is that the party is effectively rudderless at the moment and the decision making process to drive something forward quickly, and not just wait for the leadership campaign to wend its way along, is simply not there. As some people well know, I, John Tilley and a few others worked to raise funds after the Euro elections to get people to rejoin the party and take back its soul.”

    Self appointed activist seeks to stuff membership with like minded supporters, acting quickly and without democratic authorisation, in order to take control of the party and steer it in the direction he wants before anyone else realises.



    Be warned ever one – this groupuscule has made its intentions very clear

  • David Evans 9th May '15 - 6:05pm

    TCO – Why don’t you try and get us some more members then? #Goldsurge

  • @ Derek Campbell
    You’re suggestion is an impressive [Lib Dem], version for allocation of resources.
    “[LibDem],…that decisions about the allocation of resources should be made more locally where possible.”
    Intriguingly, I have been studying for some time now, something called TTI, (Google – Transition Towns Initiative). It’s a fledgling social grouping, focused very much *at the local level*. It has an impressive and growing global interest, and it appears to transcend the usual politics. Whilst TTI isn’t a perfect approach to resource allocation , I do believe strongly, that it is a useful ‘module’ worth embedding into any future social and political paradigm,… including liberalism.
    ‘As local as possible’,.. has a good vibe, and I’d definitely consider putting a [X] against it.

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 6:58pm

    David Evans 9th May ’15 – 5:22pm

    David, this sounds a very positive idea and an excellent use of this money.

    I personally have been thinking for some weeks and over the last few days speaking to colleagues in Southport about how we might make the most of the general election activity and its contacts to attract new members – particularly the young. They are the future life-blood of the party. We must also contact and re-energise former members, deliverers, supporters etc so I like your suggestion a lot.

    We have just five short years to rebuild and then confound our critics in 2020. You are right; we need to get on with this endeavour right away. Working to parliamentary and internal leadership timetables would be a waste of the time at our disposal.

    Having met and listened to him and watched several of his videos in support of Liberal Democracy, I know exactly who I would choose for this crucial task!

    A man who knows his Herdwicks from his Roughfell and Swaledales one might say!

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 7:46pm

    TCO 9th May ’15 – 5:34pm

    Come on TCO, David Evans is offering money to a party ‘big hitter’ as part of a campaign to attract new members.

    Previous members and recent deliverers, poster sites etc would appear to be a very good place to start. What would you suggest – people working in the money markets?

    Don’t you think giving links to the Russian revolution and the meaning of ‘coup d’état’ are a teeny weeny bit OTT?

  • @Stephen Hesketh – Alasdair CarMichael?

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 8:57pm

    TCO 9th May ’15 – 8:15pm

    Sadly I have never met Alistair.

    You might also wish to brush up on your knowledge of Orkney and Shetland sheep breeds:

  • @Stephen Hesketh I thought that was who you wanted as the next leader! All the clues pointed to him.

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 9:10pm

    John Dunn 9th May ’15 – 5:18pm

    John, thank you for your openness.

    With regard to your own question and predefined criteria, without quoting the much more eloquent Preamble, I would say of Liberal Democracy something along the lines of …

    The personal and collective freedom and widest welfare of people, living and yet to be born, are our priorities.
    Resources must be under true and appropriate democratic control and that irrespective of the resource or subsequently generated wealth this must be distributed, consumed and conserved fairly and sustainably.
    Liberal Democrats believe these rights are universal.

    But due to the richness, depth and breadth of Liberal philosophy, a simple (non-preamble) one-liner eludes me!

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 9:23pm

    TCO 9th May ’15 – 9:05pm
    “@Stephen Hesketh I thought that was who you wanted as the next leader! All the clues pointed to him.”

    Sir, once again it is not clear if you are seeking to lead the flock astray or simply act the goat 🙂

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '15 - 10:01pm

    TCO … I am indebted to Birkdale Focus for this link to Liberal England:


  • On a lib dem resource allocation point, I think the Tories and labour are relying on economic statistics which forget that wealth and money are not interchangeable. If we focus solely on metrics like the strength of bonds, GDP, house prices, and such like, we are prioritising the behaviour of savers over those of the spenders who keep the economy running.

    So long as the economy is profited from solely by those with the highest proposensity to save or invest in safe assets, for the man on the street assets will inflate relative to the pound (he will become poorer) while the pound will remain strong relative to other global currencies (meaning less competitive exports (those with assets in cash, stocks, and property will become richer, while industry will find it harder to compete overseas and at home).

    A new measure ofnational wealth has to take account of this inequality, partially by deflating the scarcity of assets which has inflated their value so much. This new measure should be: a nation is truly wealthy only when the man who wants a house can afford to live in one. This makes the objective of the economy not merely growth in terms of money and accounting tricks, but growth in terms of tangible goods.

  • Stephen Hesketh 10th May '15 - 8:24am

    David Evans 9th May ’15 – 5:22pm

    David, further to your positive post concerning the much needed rebuilding our membership, three popular and widely respected ‘big hitters’ who resonate well with members and supporters alike are Charles Kennedy, Vince Cable and Lynne Featherstone.

    Given the size of our team in the Commons, these may well be a better choice than my initial suggestion.

  • David Warren 10th May '15 - 9:49am

    To grow the Lib Dems need to ‘open up a bit’.

    I joined in 2011 and didn’t renew beyond 2013.

    Why, well divisions in the local party were the major factor but I felt a bit out of place at times because I came from a working class background.

    How many of the candidates in this General Election had spent a number of years working in low paid manual jobs?

  • @David Warren I’m sorry to hear of your experience and you make a valid point. It echoes mine, though from a different perspective. Things that set me apart from other activists: Frustration at local party infighting (personality based). Being under 50 and more interested in national than local council politics. Trying different ideas. Wanting to take decisions and action rather than endless circular debates.

  • @David Warren

    Bang on the money. Our local party has always been run by middle class members, the party doesn’t know how to handle normal working class people even though they’re usually the main beneficiaries of Lib Dem policy. If you look back on LDV for the past 5 years you can see people/members from a working class background get shot down time and time again.

    The Lib Dems have always been conceptually oligarchic – a small group of clever middle class people that know what to do for all the poor unfortunates. Yet the people for whom the policies are written don’t vote Lib Dem, because of the social divide between members and the public. Look at conference, look at the high street, compare and contrast! To me, this is one of the key problems the party has.

  • SIMON BANKS 11th May '15 - 9:43pm

    One of the things that most irritated me about Nick Clegg was how he constantly claimed in 2010 we stopped being a party of protest and became a party of government. We’d been in government in Scotland for eight years, and in many local authorities, making difficult decisions. We generally made wiser decisions and stood up for Liberal values with more resolution in Scotland and locally than we did at Westminster in 2010-5.

    There is a large segment of British opinion, the British Election Survey shows, that is essentially Liberal. Labour caters for some of these people but is held back by a large element in its support that is pro redistribution, NHS etc, but anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-civil-liberties. The Tories are overwhelmingly illiberal.

    No, our main loss in 2010-15 was not the protest vote, which was already a relatively small element in our support. If that weren’t so, the same surveys wouldn’t have shown our voters collectively had a clear Liberal profile. We lost relatively few votes to UKIP if repeated polls are to be trusted. No, our biggest and most dangerous loss was of most of our natural supporters, particularly Liberal-minded young people. That left our remaining areas of strength vulnerable to late fears such as the SNP-ruling-Britain-through-Miliband trick. A party in trouble needs to be able to depend on its core vote. We’ve largely lost ours and need to regain it.

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